If you watched him as Judge Advocate General Harmon Rabb Jr. on the hit series JAG, you may be surprised to find that David James Elliott isn’t quite the tough guy he appears to be onscreen.
“I was always a highly sensitive kid, always close to my feelings,” David, 58, exclusively reveals to Closer Weekly in the magazine’s latest issue, on newsstands now. In fact, the 6-foot-4 hunk who brought a swaggering John Wayne back to life in the Oscar-nominated drama Trumbo is a vegan who stays in shape with ballet-based Bar Method workouts.
“It’s brutal!” he says with a laugh. Not that he totally defies macho stereotypes: David left high school to perform in punk bands (with names like His Case of Beer!) before finding success as an actor, and now he’s returning to the role that made him a star with recurring appearances on NCIS: Los Angeles alongside his JAG costar Catherine Bell.
“It felt like putting on a comfortable old shoe,” he says of their reunion. “It was very natural.” Closer caught up with David to talk about his marriage of 27 years to actress Nanci Chambers, 55, their kids Stephanie, 26, and Wyatt, 16, and — with a Netflix figure skating drama and a film he’s producing in Scotland this summer — why he’ll “continue to stay out of my comfort zone and keep reaching higher.”
Scroll below to read our exclusive Q&A with David!
It’s great to hear Harmon Rabb is back! How did this happen?
[NCIS: Los Angeles] producer R. Scott Gemmill and I had a conversation about showing Harmon in a new light. I felt that nothing like this had ever been done. That onion of Harm as a JAG lawyer had been peeled completely, and we thought it would be exciting to have him explore the [NCIS] venue. What a great way to spin it off, see how the audience responds and hopefully take it even further. There seems to be no end to the possibilities for political stories, internal stories…
Is there potential for a JAG reboot?
Maybe! I would certainly be open to that if it went in the direction I think would be most interesting, which would be to lead Harmon onto the aircraft carrier.
How was it to come back to the role?
It was a little odd the first day — not with Catherine, but with my character. It was just kind of surreal, but it’s like we didn’t miss a beat. There are some old crew members that now work on NCIS: LA, so it was like old times.
You’ve been in prestigious projects in recent years, like Mad Men. Any favorites?
I’d have to say playing John Wayne in Trumbo would be the highlight for me. It was challenging, and I had almost a full month before I worked to really explore the character, so I completely immersed myself in John Wayne, who I knew nothing about. I hadn’t been a fan, but I am now.
What’s the wildest thing that ever happened to you on a set?
I worked with a tiger years ago. We were playing a SWAT team; I went into the house where a terrorist was, burst into a room and there’s a tiger in there. But the tiger broke its chain and walked up to me, and everyone in the room just stopped. Even the trainer was there, and nobody did anything! The tiger licked my knee, looked up into my soul and I [realized] no matter what, nobody could stop the tiger! [Laughs] He just looked at me and, I guess, decided I wasn’t worth it, and walked out of the room. That was terrifying!
Sounds like it! So, how did you get your start as an actor?
I grew up in a small farming community outside of Toronto, and quit high school
in grade 11 to go to Toronto with a band. I remember coming in early one morning as my father was leaving for work and told him, and he went “Oh, my God.” I took the band very seriously, but it turned out that was not the direction for me. I got frustrated, went back to school, got my diploma and went to theater school.
What was it that frustrated you?
I got frustrated having to rely on three other guys to be as committed as I was. Sometimes the band would be breaking up and I would think, my whole future is riding on us being equally committed and I can’t rely on them anymore. I still play guitar and stuff. My son is a player as well, and we jam.
You wed Nanci 27 years ago. What’s the secret to your successful marriage?
We work on communication and how to grow together. I try, as does my wife, to make sure the time we spend together is focused and quality time, as far as sharing responsibly and not building resentments. I don’t know — it just seems to be working!
You mentioned your son. Do you think he or your daughter will go into showbiz?
My daughter was a junior agent at Gersh [talent agency]. My son is a musician. I saw him do some plays at school and he was really terrific. I don’t know what he will do, he’s still young, and he’s very smart. I do think he will be in some part of the entertainment business.
Do you take family vacations?
Sometimes. My daughter is living with her boyfriend and she’ll come. We like to go
to the Bahamas because we have a couple of houses down there. My father was a Bahamian, so we have the farm that he grew up on. My family’s been committed to the islands for over 300 years. I grew up in Canada, but it’s a second home to me. I’m also a Bahamian citizen.
Wow! What else don’t we know about you?
I have two rats, a lizard, a snake, a bird, two dogs. I feel like a farmer sometimes!
How do you stay in such good shape?
I watch what I eat, I’ve been a vegan over five years and I train every day: I do Brazilian, jujitsu and the Bar Method. I just drop and do push-ups during the day, but it’s about diet.
What do you attribute your longevity to?
I try to reinvent myself. After JAG, I could’ve gone for some easy-money gigs, but I decided to start reaching for more interesting character stuff. And I may have a bad day, but I’m good at staying focused and positive.
Any life lessons you’ve learned?
Whatever you give, you get back tenfold. When we had our daughter, it was a revelation that at the end of a long day I’d spent wrapped up in me, I came home and she would not understand why my focus was split. So I had to drop all of that and focus on her. I try to make sure I help friends and other people and give back. That’s my greatest life lesson: to be of service.
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